Thursday, March 01, 2007


Directing as Defensive Screenwriting

By Josh R
It was a career spanning six decades, featuring some of the most cherished examples of the filmmaker’s craft in the annals of Hollywood history. The Wilder canon is stunning, not only for the number of classics it produced, but for the variety of genres it encompassed; who else, apart from Howard Hawks, ran the gamut from screwball comedy to film noir, taking pause to explore all of the ground in between?

And — in a twist worthy of a Wilder screenplay — it all might never have been if not for a cockroach.

Billy Wilder began his Hollywood career as a screenwriter in the 1930s, churning out made-to-order scripts with his longtime collaborator Charles Brackett. They had successes both modest and major, earning Academy Award nominations for their work on Ninotchka, the classic Lubitsch comedy cheekily advertised under the banner “Garbo Laughs!” and again for Hold Back the Dawn, a romantic melodrama for Paramount. The pair might happily have remained engaged in this pursuit if not for a single event — involving said fateful insect — that forever altered the course of Wilder’s career and by extension, the history of the cinematic medium.

The story goes that Wilder and Brackett had written some dialogue for Hold Back the Dawn that paired Charles Boyer, the embodiment of continental elegance and Gallic mystique, with an unusual scene partner of the non-mammalian variety. The Great French Lover was to play a Romanian refugee of dubious character waiting to gain entry into the United States. Unable to obtain his visa by honest means, he finds himself stranded in a fleabag hotel in a Mexican border town, flat broke and growing increasingly despondent at his reduced circumstances. There was nothing overtly comical built into the premise, and yet — as evidenced by Sunset Blvd. — this particular writing team had an almost perverse knack for locating elements of black humor in even the bleakest of scenarios. Boyer was to be lying in bed, fully dressed and unshaven, listlessly observing a cockroach crawling up the wall. Every time the insect tried to advance, Boyer was to impede its progress with his cane. In bitter imitation of a border guard, he was to say “Where are you going? What is the purpose of your trip?…Let’s see your papers….What, no visa? You can’t travel without a visa…”

Wilder was proud of the scene, which perfectly encapsulated what would become one of his guiding aesthetics — the inherent potential for absurdity in pathos, and the inversion of that equation. Wilder described events that followed to Cameron Crowe, who conducted a series of interviews with the director in the late 1990s:
They are shooting the picture, and Brackett and I were going for lunch to Lucy's — that was the restaurant across the street from Paramount. Now we are finished with lunch, and we passed a table where Mr. Boyer had a nice French lunch with the napkin tucked in here, and a little bottle of red wine. “Hi, Charles, how are you?” “How are you boys?” “What are you shooting today?” “We are shooting the scene with the cockroach.” “Oh, yeah, that's a good scene, isn't it?” He says, “We changed it a little bit.” “What do you mean, you changed it?” He says, “We changed it because it's idiotic — why would I talk to a cockroach if a cockroach can't answer me?” I say, “Yeah yeah yeah, but just the same, we would like you to do it.” “No no no,” says Boyer, “we talked and I convinced Mr. Leisen, I'm not talking to a cockroach.” So it was nothing. The scene became flat, nothing. So now we were upstairs writing the end to this picture, Hold Back the Dawn, the last ten pages. I say to Brackett, “If that son of a bitch doesn't talk to a cockroach, he ain't talking to nobody! Cross out his dialogue!” We won ... kind of. We should have had the whole script filmed ...

The Mr. Leisen referred to in this bitter recollection was Mitchell Leisen, the film’s director. Wilder and Brackett collaborated with Leisen on three films during the team’s tenure as contract writers for Paramount — the other two being Midnight, for which they were the credited screenwriters, and Arise, My Love, on which they provided some behind-the-scenes doctoring.

For Wilder and Leisen, unwillingly yoked together for three successive projects over three successive years, it was a match made in hell. Despising each other with a passion that bordered on irrationality, the two men had a notoriously stormy working relationship — which reputedly came to blows on at least one occasion. Still, if not for this unhappy coupling, the name of Wilder might have fallen into obscurity just as surely as that of his nemesis. Many of Wilder’s ambitions took root in his frustrations with Leisen’s dismissive attitude toward writers in general, and with him in particular — the cockroach episode (in many ways, the straw that broke the camel’s back, but hardly the first time they’d clashed) provided the impetus for Wilder to strike out on his own, directing his own scripts rather than, as he saw it, being at the mercy of an unreceptive autocrat. He fought hard to position himself behind the camera, not so much from a desire to change course, but as a means of protecting his work; Wilder had resolved never again to submit to the perceived tyrannies of men like Leisen, or see his vision butchered by those who couldn’t recognize its value.

The Crowe interviews, contained in a collection titled Conversations with Wilder, is but one of several published works devoted to the legendary director and his storied career. There are at least seven major biographies of Wilder, and most of them could be found on the shelves of any public library. To the best of my knowledge, there is but one book written about Mitchell Leisen, credited to a film scholar named David Chierichietti. As it was listed as being available in the online catalog for The State University of New York at Albany’s library — the only place it could be found in the area — I immediately sought it out. Not only was it not to be found on the shelf, but the librarian judged it to have been missing for a period of several years. It was still cataloged as an active item due to the fact that within the duration, no one had realized it was gone — no one had ever requested it. That, in a nutshell, illustrates the degree to which one man’s legacy has eclipsed the other’s — an ironic twist of fate which was lost on neither man in the years to follow. The underappreciated writer, who had found himself involuntarily exiled from Leisen’s sets after being labeled a distraction and a nuisance, would go on to win six Academy Awards. Leisen, despite helming other successful films such as To Each His Own and The Mating Season, by the early 1950s would find himself reduced to directing episodic television. It was undoubtedly a bitter pill to swallow for a man who at one point was considered the equal of Lubitsch.

This much is known without the benefit of Chierichietti’s insights: Mitchell Leisen began his career as an art director, known for his opulent tastes and overweening attention to detail. He designed sets and costumes for Cecil B. DeMille before advancing to the rank of director, and consolidated his status with a run of commercial successes. Flamboyantly homosexual, he was generally entrusted with “women’s pictures” — usually melodramas — and light-hearted screwball comedies. He made several good films during the 1930s, including the Carole Lombard vehicle Hands Across the Table and the Preston Sturges-scripted Easy Living, and was given preference on projects which required an element of stylishness and an airy touch. He was, in Wilder’s estimation, “a glorified window dresser.” To his biographer Maurice Zolotow, Wilder related some of his less charitable impressions:
Leisen spent more time with Edith Head worrying about the pleats on a skirt than he did with us on the script. He didn't argue over scenes. He didn't know shit about construction. And he didn't care. All he did was he fuck up the script and our scripts were damn near perfection, let me tell you. He didn't have the brains to see that if Charlie and me, if we put in a line, we had a goddamn reason for putting in that line and not a different line, and you don't just go and cut a line or a piece of action to please some actress, at least without putting another line or action in its place. I ask you, is that so difficult to understand? And Charlie hated him as much as I did. Because if we gave in to him, there would be holes in the script which he shot. What can you do with a director that comes on the set at 7 a.m. and puts exact marks where everybody must stand and who'll stop a camera which is rolling to fix the hem of a dress? He didn't know what was a plot. Charlie and I could always give him twenty alternative lines, but to him — cut, cut, cut, it didn't matter. Leisen wasn't the only director who didn't know what a script was. He was more arrogant and more ignorant than the average. He thinks he's smart when he cuts this, cuts that, this isn't necessary, that's extraneous. I tell you, in a good script, everything is necessary or it ain't good. And if you take out one piece, you better replace it with a different piece, or you got trouble.

If Wilder’s comments seem unusually harsh, it should be noted that they were given in direct response to those made by Leisen to David Chierchetti, who tracked the old man down in Motion Picture Country Home in 1972.
Billy Wilder was a middle European fresh from the old country, and most of my fights were with him. Having done eight years of psychoanalysis, I knew that a character had to follow a certain emotional pattern. I'd say, 'Billy, you have this guy doing something that is completely inconsistent. You suddenly introduce a completely different emotional setup for this character, and it can't be. It has to follow a definite emotional pattern.' Well, Billy couldn't figure this one out, but Brackett could. Brackett was sort of a leveling influence. He would referee my quarrels with Billy.

Wilder biographer Edward Sikov provides a further sampling of some of the jabs made by Leisen at his enemy’s expense:
Billy would scream if you changed one line of his dialogue. I used to say, 'Listen, this isn't Racine, it's not Shakespeare. If the actors we have can't say it, we must give them something they can say.'….Wilder's the one with whom we had the most difficult discussions, because he comes from Central Europe and he was stubborn as a mule when anyone touched his words.

This rancorous back-and-forth, alternately fueled and refereed by various writers relating Leisen’s cranky diatribes back to Wilder, is amusing in and of itself, but also provides a revealing glimpse into the frightening disconnect that can occur when artistic values and temperaments clash. Wilder had the last word:
And about this Shakespeare — well, I didn't think our lines were the Ten Commandments chiseled with a platinum hammer out of Carrara marble. It was just — oh, hell, there were these voids in most of his films where any screenwriter could see Leisen has been chopping. Midnight is perfect because I fought him every inch of the way.

In this assertion, Wilder was undoubtedly correct. Hailed by critic Pauline Kael as “rapturous fun” and “one of the authentic delights of the 1930s,” Midnight is a film to rank alongside Ninotchka as one of the best comedies of its era, and proof that even the most contentious of partnerships can produce a classic. Featuring Claudette Colbert in one of her best performances, the plot concerns an opportunistic American showgirl masquerading as a Hungarian baroness, and the hijinks that ensue — the actress often cited the film as her personal favorite, no small compliment given her participation in more widely heralded films such as The Palm Beach Story and It Happened One Night. As far as his unhappy history with Leisen was concerned, Wilder had at least won Round One. Fighting tooth and nail to preserve the integrity of his script undoubtedly paid off — abounding with signature Wilder & Brackett touches, their work on Midnight stands today as a supreme example of the writer’s craft.

As for Hold Back the Dawn, the “damage” of Leisen’s interference with the script is perhaps somewhat more apparent, although the final draft still featured enough in the way of deftly written, idiosyncratic set pieces to qualify the finished product as an above-average effort. Certainly, it stands apart from other examples of the romantic melodrama oeuvre given its unexpected flashes of humor. When Paulette Goddard, as a hard-edged vixen who seduced an American jockey to obtain her green card (and just as quickly discarded him as soon as her citizenship was finalized), remarks of her ex-husband’s height, “A woman wants a man, not a radiator cap,” the cadence is unmistakably Wildean.

The film is by no means great, and in some places not even particularly good (a fact of which Wilder was painfully aware and blamed Leisen for), but it has a sharp streak of wit running through its more successful passages, no more evidenced than in the conspiratorial relationship between the smarmy cad and trampy tart played by Boyer and Goddard. A professional gigolo by trade, Boyer resolves to follow his cohort's example, circumventing the difficulties of securing his visa via marriage to an American — an automatic guarantee of citizenship. With tourist Olivia de Havilland as his unsuspecting quarry, he sets about putting his plan in motion.

If Leisen ran afoul of Wilder by capitulating to the vanity of Boyer, the actor himself suffered more by positioning himself squarely on the receiving end of the screenwriter’s wrath. After the dust-up involving the cockroach, Wilder made good on his threat that if the Frenchman wasn’t talking to an insect, he wasn’t talking to anyone. As he related to Sikov, he and Brackett “went back and finished the third act, and we gave everything to Olivia de Havilland.” Indeed, the part of a guileless woman being ruthlessly manipulated by an opportunistic suitor (echoes of the actress’s later triumph in The Heiress) was built up to give the actress ample opportunity to shine in what had originally been conceived as a lesser role in a star vehicle for Boyer — in many sequences, the actor was reduced to a spectator. Largely due to the late additions of Wilder and Brackett, who fashioned some very dramatic material for her to work with, de Havilland received the first of her four Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. When told of the events that precipitated the rewrites by Zolotow in 1976, she wrote “I had no idea that I owed that Academy nomination to a cockroach spurned by Boyer and championed by Wilder, but I’m grateful, very grateful.”

Certainly, Hold Back the Dawn was a pivotal film in Wilder’s career, as it bolstered his resolve to step out of other filmmakers’ shadows and take the reins for himself. For that, Leisen deserves no small portion of the credit. The success of Preston Sturges, who also cited Leisen’s botching of his work (specifically the Jean Arthur comedy Easy Living) as the motivating factor in his switch to directing, undoubtedly influenced Wilder’s decision to make his move. As he related to Crowe, “You could get to be an old man writing just Mitch Leisen pictures…He got tired of me, because I contradicted him, and he wrote something entirely different. Very often he didn’t shoot it, or shot something entirely different.” Perhaps, in the end, there was some subconscious measure of gratitude in his attitude towards Leisen — it required the obstacles encountered in dealing with an antagonist to make Wilder’s true destiny apparent to himself. For Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd. and Some Like It Hot, to name just a few, I suspect we all may owe Mitchell Leisen a debt of gratitude...and, of course, to the fortuitous cockroach who made all the trouble to begin with.
CAMERON CROWE: Over the years, it appears you’ve upgraded your estimation of Leisen.
BILLY WILDER: Sure, the anger gets washed away, gets watery. You know, you forget about it…I cannot forgive Mr. Hitler, but certainly I can forgive Mr. Leisen.

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Fascinating. I've read Crowe's book but forgotten most of this. I haven't seen Midnight or Hold Back the Dawn, but copies fell into my lap today so I'll get to them soon.
Great piece! I've read that book, and can also suggest The Billy Wilder Interviews book. It's interesting because you'll see how Wilder evolves in interviews over the years, how he tells subtly different versions of the same story (one of which sounds like it was delivered by Paramount, not Wilder). His 1996 interview is especially interesting in that book.
As sort of a fun side note, Wilder was still a bit miffed at Boyer by the time he started writing his next screenplay. In The Major and the Minor, there's a scene in a train station where a little girl is told by her mother to put down a book, at which point the child replies "But it's Why I Hate Women, by Charles Boyer." The reference was hardly coincidental - let it never be said that Wilder was above taking potshots at those who incurred his disdain.
I've actually read much of the Chierchetti biography of Leisen, but it's been a while. I can't remember specifics, but I did come away with the impression that Leisen had been unduly vilified at least a bit.

Certainly I think his changes to Sturges's Remember the Night screenplay only improved the film; it's one of the best he directed. I haven't done a close comparison of the Easy Living script to the final product, but as much as I love Sturges I'm not sure what the result of such a comparison might be.

Leisen has also made some very underrated films from scripts by non-future-directors: Swing High, Swing Low, Murder at the Vanities, and (according to imdb, an uncredited co-directed film) Bolero are all quite good for their genres. Coincidentally I have the DVD of Hands Across the Table on the top of my to-watch pile and I'm very much looking forward to it.

I've yet to see a bad film directed by Leisen, but I cannot say the same for Preston "the Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend" Sturges or Billy "Buddy, Buddy" Wilder. Though I admit it's unfair to pick out late-career duds like these, when the only things I've seen directed by the late-career Leisen are his excellent "Twilight Zone" episodes, including one, the Sixteen Millimeter Shrine starring Ida Lupino, which is a fascinating rejoinder to Sunset Blvd.

It's interesting to read quotes of Wilder trying to take credit for the success of Midnight, which may indeed be the best film Leisen ever directed, but then again, it may be the best Wilder ever wrote as well (I like it a lot better than Ninotchka from the same year, myself, and I'm very partial to Lubitsch). Anyway, it's certainly a great film, and if it was borne of a conentuous relationship, then perhaps that says something for the studio system and the way it forced artists to work with each other to create something greater than what conflicting personalities would come up with on their own. There could be a lesson for current filmmakers in here. Maybe if Kevin Smith and Paul Thomas Anderson tried directing each others' scripts they might both come up with better movies than they can on their own?
I thought you had a really great piece. That was certainly very interesting.

I remember that quote from Conversations with Billy Wilder
What a wonderful read. You've done a masterful job of compiling these quotes and anecdotes to underscore the pivotal impact of the Wilder/Leisen enmity. Thank you.
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